I love snorkeling! And Ambergris Caye, Belize is a wonderful place to do it. Warm crystal clear water, beautiful reefs and frolicking sea turtles. There is nothing as relaxing as floating on top of the water, watching amazing sea life, with the warm sun on your back.
It’s usually in this relaxing moment that my brain betrays me. I start to hear that John Williams soundtrack from my childhood. The beating heart sound from Jaws, slow at first (bum bum…bum bum) and then speeding up with my heartbeat. Suddenly the beautiful reef seems scary, panic sets in, and I am out of the water.
Sharks terrify me. It has no rational basis.
So when my husband suggested a catamaran ride to “Shark Alley” to swim with sharks and rays, I thought he was crazy. Swimming with sharks!?! Why would I do that? But these sharks aren’t scary, they’re just nurse sharks.
Nurse sharks are bottom feeders, who can get large, up to about 15 feet long. They usually eat sea snails and mollusks with their very small mouths. So they have no interest in eating people. But you shouldn’t step on them.
Ambergris Caye has a portion of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, a 1000km barrier reef that runs from the top of the Yucatán down past Belize to Guatemala and Honduras. This area is abundant with fish and marine animals, as well as some beautiful reefs, including nurse sharks and southern manta rays.
Hol Chan Marine Reserve is a popular destination on the reef for people looking to swim with the sharks and manta rays. To get to the marine reserve, you can buy tickets on a tour boat from the San Pedro pier (on the East side of town, not the international pier on the West side). There are several operators to choose from.
Or, you can do what we did and hire a catamaran for a half or full-day trip out to the reserve with a captain and first mate. We hired it through the property manager of our vacation rental. It cost us about $300 USD for 5 people for a half-day trip from our dock, 6 miles north of San Pedro, down past San Pedro to the reserve, but prices are subject to change.
The boat we sailed on was El Gato, captained by Geraldo Badillo and first mate Justo. You can find more information on their boat here: http://ambergriscaye.com/elgato/. The boat was great, with plenty of room to sunbathe (or hide in the shade). The boys rode on the front of the boat, hanging their heads off the side and looking for dolphins. Geraldo and Justo cooked us a delicious lunch of conch ceviche and grilled chicken and fish while we snorkeled in a spot near the reserve, and then we moved to the reserve and swam with the sharks.
I wasn’t going to do it. I was going to stay on the boat and take pictures of the boys swimming with the sharks. I knew it was safe and was trying to sound brave for my kids but I didn’t really think that I could do it.
Geraldo anchored the boat and threw some chum in the water to get the sharks attention. Instantly our boat was surrounded by nurse sharks and Manta Rays. Justo jumped in and invited us into the water. Everyone was in agreement that Dad should go first. Rich jumped in with his snorkel and swam around. He called for us to follow but the boys yelled mom first and refused to jump without me. What could I do? I jumped!
It was great. Nurse sharks are beautiful and not scary at all. The Manta Rays were enormous and graceful creatures, gliding across the ocean floor and going nose to nose with the sharks for bits of chum.
The boys were still reluctant to go in. They stood on the edge of the boat and dared each other to jump. Finally, with a little push from their big brother our twins jumped in. Assured that his little brothers had not been eaten, our oldest jumped in and we all had a blast!
Swimming with the sharks has really lessened my fear of sharks and I feel less nervous snorkeling now. I would highly recommend a trip to Shark Alley for anyone visiting Ambergris Caye. It was the highlight of our time in Belize.